So you want to be a beekeeper! You’ll do your part to save the bees, and you’ll have honey on your toast every morning, right?

My name is Ed Colby. I’m the president of the Colorado State Beekeepers Association (2016-2020) and a longtime columnist for Bee Culture magazine. Now take a deep breath, please, because before you get started. I have some good news, and I have some bad news.

First, the bad news: There is nothing on Earth easier than failing at beekeeping.  By “failing” I mean allowing your bees to die.

Beekeeping requires some fundamental knowledge about honey bees and how to care for them. Short of working for a commercial beekeeper, the best first step for a beginner is to take a course taught by a competent teacher. In Colorado, lots of regional bee clubs, plus universities like Montana State and Penn State, teach such courses, either in-person or online. But a little education still isn’t going to be enough to get your bees through their first year. Beekeeping requires time-consuming dedication.  Getting bees is not like getting a kitten. If your bees are to live and thrive, you’re going to have to do some work.  In the summer this means checking on your bees every 10-14 days. You might like to take vacations, but your bees do not. If you place a hive in your backyard and don’t take care of it, you’re not “saving the bees.” You’re killing them, because parasitic Varroa mites will eat them alive, creating wounds that vector the transmission of deadly viruses.

Varroa mites are an invasive species relatively new to the United States. All bee hives in the U.S. harbor them. These reddish, pinhead-sized critters normally attach themselves to the undersides of adult bees, so they’re pretty hard to spot. There are ways to determine if mite populations have reached levels that threaten the health of the hive, but they are time-consuming and require not only education but a can-do determination on the part of the beekeeper. None of this is easy.

Left unchecked, Varroa mite infestations normally peak in the fall, when mite numbers continue to grow, just as a honey bee colony reduces its bee population in preparation for winter. In other words, the ratio of mites to bees increases. The colony now likely succumbs to one or more viruses. As its mite-ridden bee population dwindles, opportunistic bees from neighboring hives raid the collapsing colony, feasting on honey and picking up hitchhiking mites that they bring back to their own hive.

You as a fledgling beekeeper will be forced to make a conscious or unconscious choice. Do nothing to reduce the mite population in your hives, and your bees will likely not make it through their first winter.   Even if your colony is headed by an extraordinary queen who imparts above-average mite resistance to her workers, its being “Varroa bombed” by collapsing mite-ridden hives in your neighborhood can and likely will, seal its doom.

Your other option is to use formic and oxalic acids, thymol, hops derivatives, synthetic chemicals, or even mechanical means to kill mites. It can be a messy business. Some treatments are more effective than others. Some work only at certain times of the year. You need to be careful not to contaminate the honey. All of this costs time and money.

You can search for queens that impart a level of mite resistance to their offspring, but I recommend you get a little experience before you tackle this. The thing to remember is that sooner, not later,  you will surely face serious challenges from mites, and a failure on your part to act on behalf of your bees can spell curtains for the innocent creatures in your charge. Some people consider this animal abuse.

You don’t like the sound of this, do you? I don’t like it either. If your passion to keep bees is anything short of red-hot, and you still want to help pollinators, maybe there’s a better path for you. You could plant a bee-friendly garden, or advocate for stronger pesticide restrictions, or join an environmental organization devoted to pollinators, like the Xerces Society. You can help bees without owning any.

For those of you still determined to keep bees there is, however, some good news. If you’re willing to commit yourself, you can thread the needle and learn to keep your bees alive. It will be more work than you ever imagined. But if — and only if —  you have the fire in your belly, you can do it, and CSBA can help.

If you’re easily discouraged, you’ll never make it, because failure is part of the learning curve. But if you’re willing to learn, if you’re willing to fall flat on your face and get up and have another go, if bees haunt your daydreams, if you put your heart and soul into this noble craft, you might find you have the right stuff.

The world doesn’t need more beekeepers. It needs more good ones.

The easy way to collect clean propolis is to use a propolis trap late in the summer, when bees are already wanting to propolize everything in sight. It looks a lot like a a queen excluder (but different), and fits on top of the uppermost hive body. Once the bees get it filled with propolis, the trap goes in the freezer to stiffen. Frozen propolis is brittle, and a couple of twists to the trap yield a nice little pile of small propolis “sticks”. I just tried one for the first time this year.  Works great!

I also end up at the end of the year with a fist-sized or larger glob of propolis scrapings. These aren’t so clean.  They contain wood chips, bee legs, beeswax, etc. This glob goes in the freezer, too, along with either a dedicated coffee grinder, or a mortar and pestle. Once well frozen, the propolis and tools come out of the freezer. Break off a small chunk of propolis, and put the rest back in the freezer. Just a couple of minutes in the mortar and pestle will yield a nice pile of propolis dust, up to pin head size. The finer you can get it, the cleaner you will be able to get it, and the more good stuff the alcohol will be able to pull out for the tincture. If you are using a coffee grinder, be aware that grinding for too long will heat the propolis, and make it very sticky.

Place the ground propolis into a square of cloth or paint filter. This gives you something to lift it out of the water with. Submerge in cool water, deep enough to allow the junk to float up. It will take a couple of minutes of stirring to get everything wet enough to work properly.  Skim the junk off the surface of the water, and lift your now-clean propolis out using the square of cloth. Allow to drip, and air dry.

Propolis powder mixed with honey, at a ratio of 3 parts propolis to 7 parts of honey, is a great wound dressing. Supposedly, it will even heal a wound that already has gangrene. I used a 1:2 ratio of propolis/honey for the honey facial demonstation.

To make a tincture, add 1 part of propolis to 5 parts of oil, alcohol (like vodka), or water, depending on the intended use. Never use rubbing alcohol, which is poisonous. Shake the liquid and propolis jar twice daily for a minimum of two weeks, and strain. Alcohol does the best job of pulling the good stuff out of the propolis, and into the liquid for use. Alcohol, water, and oil all pull different constituents from the propolis. For a great mouthwash, you’d use a water tincture. For a body cream, an oil tincture would be used. Alcohol propolis tincture works well for use as a medicinal.  Propolis is antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and even anti-tumoral in some instances.

Dangers of spring

When our bees survive through Feb. we breathe a sigh of relief, but the biggest danger of spring is really only beginning. Honey bees use 1/3 of their honey stores during the winter, and the other 2/3rds are used after brood rearing really begins in earnest. Spring pollen flows trigger the bees to raise a lot more brood, but are often not accompanied by nectar flows. The brood nest grows to a much larger size, and must be maintained at 96 degrees which is very energy intensive.

It is very important to make sure that your bees have enough food in March and April. Feeding sugar water during freezing temperatures can be tricky. I’ve read (but not experienced) that a quart jar with holes in the lid, and inverted over the cluster will be kept from freezing by the heat from the bees. I’ve also heard of bees being drowned this way. With my own eyes I have seen hive top feeders produce so much  condensation that they wet the bees and kill the colony.

One solution is to feed sugar patties. Keep in mind that bees can’t use dry sugar, it needs to be damp, or they need a water source. Spritzing unused sugar patties with a spray bottle of water can sometimes allow the bees access to this important safety measure.

I opened one of my hives a couple of weeks ago. They started the winter with 2 deeps and a full medium. The bees were in the top box, and without removing frames, it looked like all the honey comb in that box was uncapped. So much for the 1/3rds thing. Guidelines are good, but there are always exceptions. Luckily, I had saved a full honey super, and so could just put it on.

Always remember, when checking on bees’ stores in spring, don’t disturb the cluster when it is below 55 degrees, and don’t break propolis seals until then.  If it was very warm, or very cold all winter, the bees will have used more honey than usual. Be prepared and save your bees.

Happy Beeks!
I am sure you have all seen that your bees will fly if it is over 45 degrees. That is pretty amazing, since they can’t even move out of the cluster unless it is at least 40 degrees. These bee biology facts help us understand what we can do for our bees, and when. Since we know they can’t move at all unless it is at least 40′, we know that they need it to warm up a bit before they can move to full honey combs. For this reason, I usually wrap my hives with tar paper during (actual) winters. It looks like this might be one. These days that have warm temps are the perfect time to do that. I just staple the tar paper right to the hive body; langstroth, top bar, and long hive alike, making sure to leave the ventilation holes open. We want to do this on a nice day, so that if our disturbance makes the bees leave the cluster, they’ll be able to get back up before being paralyzed by the cold. Same thing with adding sugar patties. The one in the photo has pollen patty, too. Pollen is better kept off until later. Bee candy or sugar on newspaper is perfect for right now. You can see that there is no hardware cloth or support under my bee candy. I mixed it fairly dry, and let it set in my sunny window for a few days until it was self-supporting. I used 10 lbs of sugar to 3/4 cup of water, and used the bread hooks of my stand mixer to help. There is a nice article at for those of you who want to read more. Make good use of these nice days! T


My mother was right, you should always wear clean underwear….This was my husband’s comment after our latest beekeeping adventure.  According to our friend Bruce, sometimes you need kevlar underwear, and maybe that would have helped in this instance, but only if Neil had been wearing the underwear on his head.
The bees in my Aztec yard were particularly pissy the other day.  I think because the alfalfa has been cut, and there is a dearth for them now.  I got stung three times just walking through the yard.  There are times that bees stings are not something to be trifled with.  Neil received 4 stings to his head and face, and he couldn’t get the stingers out, so got ALL the venom.  He usually has a strong local reaction, like, the hand that got stung swells up huge and stays that way for 3 days.  That is not what you need clean underwear for.
This time, he started getting hives all over the arm that had a bee sting on the hand.  Then,  hives on the other arm, too.  When there is a reaction in an area not stung, it is time to go the the Urgent Care unit.  He was beet red, boots to hat, and said that his ears were burning.  All of these are clues to an allergic reaction.
We went to urgent care, where they viewed his underwear while giving him two shots that he was very happy to receive.  This is not a place to mess around and wait to see.  Go to urgent care!
It is very common for relatives of beekeepers to develop an allergy to bee venom, since they come in contact with the venom on bee suits and equipment in doses too small to engender resistance.  It is very wise for every beekeeper to have an epi-pen on hand.  I have been a beekeeper for 12 years now, and just now saw this reaction in my mate.
The fact that Neil’s hives were going away even before he got his shots makes me pretty sure that he just needs more bee venom.  Many beekeepers tell me that they have worsening reactions in the 2nd and 3rd years of beekeeping.  My reply is always that they are not getting enough stings.  Another good reason to work bare-handed!  Develop resistance, not allergic reaction, but have an epi-pen on hand in case you are the one in a thousand, or your husband is.
My plan now, always wear clean underwear when beekeeping, and give my husband micro-stings once a week.  He says “NO!” I guess I’ll be sneaking up on him…  T

The reverse split

A better way to split your hives

In a reverse split, the queen moves to the new hive location along with almost all of the nurse bees.  The foragers will remain in the parent, or original location.  Many beekeepers currently are doing 50/50 splits, which of course only stay 50/50 if you move the colony 5 miles away immediately.  Otherwise, the foragers will all return to the original location, even if the queen is moved.  They will abandon her.  If left in the same apiary, the new hive in a 50/50 will become more like a 20/80 split when the foragers return to the original location.  Many backyard beekeepers do not have the luxury or the time to move splits away.

Keeping both parts of a split strong

Splitting a hive in the traditional way inherently introduces weaknesses to both parts.  One will be weak because it does not have a queen or foragers, and thus cannot build up until a new queen emerges and mates.  The other will be weak because it has too few bees.  The reverse split keeps both sides strong by moving all of the nurses, rather than only 50% of them as in a 50/50, and allows the hive with the most bees do the raising of the new queen.  It is called a Doolittle (after them man who invented it) because you do not need to find the queen.

How do we move the queen without finding her…

And, how do we move all of the nurses?  This is the simplest split you will ever do, and the most effective.  First set up a bottom board and a hive body in the new location.  Open the parent hive and remove the sheet of honey nearest the wall.  Move this and the bees that are on it to the new location, right next to the wall like it was  The next frame should contain bee bread and honey, move that one, too, and put it next to the first one.  Now go through the frames one by one.  Any that contain open brood get moved to the new hive along with the bees that are on it (nurse bees are on open brood, right?)  Just set them in place in the order they came out in.  Any frames that contain capped brood get shaken out over the new colony, and then replaced in the center of the parent hive.You do not need to shake every single bee off, just enough that you can confidently know that you did not move the queen back into the parent hive.  You can look for the queen before you shake as well, if you like.  It might be nice not to shake her if you can help it.  When you finish going all the way through the hive, the open brood, the queen, and all of the bees will be in the new hive, and the capped brood will be in the parent hive, with a few bees that were left after a good shake or two.  Obviously, you need to leave some eggs in the parent hive so that it can make a new queen, but it would be practically impossible not to.  Many of the frames will have a mixture of open and capped brood, we are just choosing where they go based on what the majority of the brood is.  The foragers will return to the parent hive.  The capped brood will begin emerging, and the parent hive will return to a nice balance of nurses and foragers.  The new hive will contain enough nurses to support the queen, and they will begin maturing into foragers, so that this hive also returns to a balance of nurses and foragers.  The queen ends up with about 30% of the total bees that were in the hive, vs. only 15% that would remain with her in a 50/50 split.  She can begin building the hive numbers rapidly with plenty of nurses to cover brood.  In this way we have overcome the weakness of the new colony, too few bees.  We have also overcome the weakness of the colony that needs to raise a queen by leaving it with a very good population to defend it while the new queen is emerging and mating.

Putting it all back together

The new colony needs to be very well apportioned with honey and bee bread from the parent, since they will have no foragers for a few days.  Be sure you leave some honey in both colonies, however.  As you put them both back together, remember the basic order that bees want the frames in….honey next to the walls, then bee bread, brood uninterrupted in the middle.  Frames with foundation can go between the bee bread and brood on one side, for the bees to draw out.

Make sure it worked

One week after the split, open both colonies.  The new colony should have the queen and eggs.  The parent colony should have capped queen cells.  If it does, close it up and leave it alone for 3 more weeks so the queen has time to mate without being disturbed.  If not, add eggs from another colony so that they can start a new queen.  Remember that the queen cells won’t be on the bottom like swarm cells, since they are actually emergency cells.  They will be in the middle of the frame, usually.

What if…

What if you have capped swarm cells already when you do the split?  Be sure to leave ALL of the queen cells in the parent, and to move the queen.  Brush, don’t shake, the frames that have queen cells and put them back where you found them, shaking queen cells can cause the larval queen to fall out of the royal jelly and starve.  Sometimes the existing queen will have already left with the swarm, and you can’t tell because there are so many bees.  Or, she will still leave the new colony with a swarm because you did this too late.  This is why you need to check to make sure she is still there.  The beauty of this split is that even if she still goes with a swarm, she only takes a quarter of your bees, instead of half or more.  If the new colony is queenless after a week, and it is strong enough, give it eggs to start a new queen, or re-combine it with the old colony.

A reverse split helps us do what we always should do…help the bees do what they want to do rather than making them do something else.  In the spring, the bees want to send the old queen away with some of the bees to start a new colony, exactly what we have just helped them do.  Happy Beekeeping!  T


Several people in my club have asked this question recently…”shouldn’t I wait to use the oxalic acid vaporizer until it is colder?” I wanted to vaporize while it was warmer, and this is a good chance to learn to think about bees.  Here are the facts we know, and some questions:

The bees started making brood after the solstice,  ( I can tell you this is true because I see them in my observation hive.

The more brood there is, the more mites will be protected from the vapor.

The phoretic mites will be on the bees nearest the brood, in the center of the cluster.  Will the vapor really get in well if the cluster is tight?

Bees are paralyzed by cold, will the vapor be so disturbing that the bees will uncluster and be unable to get back?

My instinct tells me that I need to vaporize while the bees are in the hive, but not clustered tightly, and it is warm enough that they can move around a little to groom and still get back in the cluster, and before there is any more capped brood where mites can hide.  It took a while to find someone with an answer, but David Baker from To Bee or Not To Bee had one.  He says what he has read is the OA vaporization should be done between 30 and 50 degrees.  40 was the number I had in mind, since that is the temp at which bees can move inside the hive to access honey stores.  Adding together the facts we know about bee behavior is a good way to come to a conclusion about how we should react to what we see in our hives.   What do you think, did I miss anything?  T

Winter is the perfect time to learn about our bees, and the perfect time to set goals for ourselves and our beekeeping. The CSBA Master Beekeeper Certification Program is gearing up for a busy and educational summer. I am meeting this week with our web guy (have you seen our new web page?) about getting the MB program back up there.  First to appear will be our new Apprentice Level written exam which is based on “The Beekeepers Handbook” by Diana Sammataro.  It would be so fun to form a study group in your bee club and prepare for not only the exam, but also to be a better beekeeper. Topics include winter cluster behavior, indications of swarm preparation, robbing, flower fidelity, bee biology, and all those things about our bees that fascinate us. If you have been a beekeeper for two years, you qualify to take the exam, and after also passing the field exam, you graduate to the Journeyperson level. I have to admit, I thought it was pretty interesting just to see if I could pass the exams.

Beekeeping Merit Badges

For those of you who have already qualified to move on to the Journey Level, we’ll have Guided Studies on all kinds of topics like Feeding, Development of the Honey Bee, Pesticide Poisoning, Mites (of course!), Over-wintering, Queen Rearing. These studies are for you to work through on your own.  They will help you learn to research effectively, and help prepare you for the written and lab exams.   CSBA will sponsor and schedule classes this spring on these and other topics such as swarm prevention and increased honey production. We are still working on the budget, and we are looking for funding to help keep your involvement in the Master Beekeeper Certification Program much more affordable. Imagine if you really knew how to keep your bees healthy and happy, and the beekeepers around you all did, too.

Let’s get started!   Get your copy of “The Beekeepers Handbook”, start studying, and keep your eye on for more info coming soon.

One of the neat things about horizontal beekeeping versus (vertical) Langstroth beekeeping is that you can be a lot more active in the winter without disturbing the cluster. I just got in a couple of my top bar hives yesterday. Working from the back of the hive I removed full honey combs and set them aside until I reached empty combs and started seeing a few bees. The goal here is to place the full honey combs in the hive, up against the back of the cluster, and push the empty comb to the back of the hive out of the way. But, here is where the temptation comes in. I really thought I should be seeing more bees than what I was,and the temptation to peek at the cluster proved too strong.  I kept going until I saw the tiny cluster with the queen. Since the temps were above 50′, they will be fine,(probably) and now I know. The queen and cluster were in the middle of 5 empty frames, and of course since it is after the winter solstice, that is where she wants to begin laying. Now they have room to lay, but honey is easily accessible, in case of a cold snap. Long hives can have this treatment as well, as long as there is a covering over the cluster so that you don’t let the heat and scent out.  Happy Beekeeping!  T